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Out of 'Toon

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"The function of any museum is to set or raise standards, elevating the perception of the art form. [The Boca cartoon museum] is the largest collection of cartoon art in the United States -- and probably the most important because we have very rare art from the early days of comics."

The museum, however, hasn't yet found a suitable recipe for presenting its wealth of drawings. At present its displays merely dip a toe into the stream of 100 years of cartooning worldwide. Separate exhibits include gag cartoons, comic book art, Sunday funnies, and editorial cartoons -- all displayed at a height and with a sobriety that make it clear they are intended for adults. (A separate display room called the "Create-a-Toon Center" targets the young and provides a chance to sketch a strip.) One small alcove offers early Disney and Warner Bros. illustrations to explain how animated cartoons are made. The Hearst Hall of Fame holds examples of work from 14 cartoonists inducted since 1975, virtually all of whom are Sunday strip artists. The museum, however, offers scant interpretation; it's hard to tell just how these cartoon forms relate to one another or to ascertain the role they've played in American society. A small placard quoting Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Peters comes closest to providing this kind of context: "Editorial cartooning has always been viewed as the "ungentlemanly' art. When "Boss Tweed' was run out of Tammany Hall, he said, "My voters can't read but they can understand those damn cartoons.'"

Melba Urbanek became a member of the museum board after Will Ray introduced her to Walker. She recalls spending a considerable amount of time with other trustees before the museum opened discussing the museum's identity -- which, she admits, has still not been firmly established. "It's set up now to look at art, but it's not quite as participatory as we had originally thought it would be. Everyone relates to cartoons differently, and it's hard to know where that is. Are you just doing cartoons? Should you have live characters there? Or are you looking at the art, such as "Prince Valiant'? Or should we look at the remarkable area of human rights issues in editorial cartoons? We had to make do with the money we had." (The museum's "theater" remains a wide-screen TV and folding chairs in rows.)

The museum is not without its critics. John Backderf, creator of the syndicated strip "The City," which runs in New Times and other alternative publications, calls the Boca museum "a crypt for embalmed mainstream cartoons" and a "closed shop of Walker and his buddies" that offers no contemporary underground or groundbreaking work. "It's a museum celebrating commercial success, not artistic merit. That's like opening a modern art museum with nothing but paintings of card-playing dogs and then wondering why no one is interested," Backderf says.

Unfortunately for the museum, advancing its mission has consistently taken a back seat to dealing with its financial plight. The museum has struggled to stay in the black with its $1 million annual operating expenses while at the same time dealing with lackluster attendance. Annual attendance, projected at six figures, actually hovered around 50,000. Other financial support evaporated. In December 1996, Marvel Comics, which had pledged $100,000 a year to the museum for ten years, filed for bankruptcy. The museum ultimately received only about $180,000 of the pledge, Walker says. A merchandising contract with Great American Candy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, guaranteed the museum $500,000 a year. In September 1997, a month before marketing of the cartoon-theme candy was to begin, the company went out of business.

With industry support crumbling, the museum in June 2000 turned to a potential savior: the Florida Atlantic University Foundation, the school's development-and-fundraising branch. FAU proposed taking on the museum's $2 million of debt and its operating expenses and continuing to display cartoon art on the first floor. The university intended to convert the second and third floors into classrooms. But FAU was spooked away after some members of the Boca Raton City Council -- who also sit as members of the Community Redevelopment Agency -- fretted over the potential parking and traffic problems created by students. FAU dropped its plans.

In the meantime the museum had stopped making its quarterly mortgage payments of $20,000 to SunTrust Bank in October 1999. With the FAU deal dead, SunTrust moved to foreclose the mortgage and seize the museum's most prized possession: the first known drawings of Mickey Mouse.

Mickey's first appearance on paper is a slapdash affair, manic sketches of an adventure-mad mouse. To the uninitiated, the drawings might look like the musings of a bored art student rather than the genesis of a media empire.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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